The World Needs Reconciliation Centres

TFF PressInfo 76

 August 19, 1999


"Do you remember Kim, the 9-year old Vietnamese girl, running as she was hit by napalm from U.S. warplanes in 1972? That picture haunted John Plummer for 24 years; he'd been a helicopter pilot and helped organise the napalm raid. His marriage crashed, he isolated himself and took to drinking; he eventually became a Methodist pastor in Virginia. In 1996, Kim and John met and he says: 'Kim saw my grief, my pain, my sorrow...She held out her arms to me and embraced me. All I could say was 'I'm sorry; I'm sorry - over and over again. And at the same time she was saying, 'It's all right, I forgive you.' They are now good friends, and call each other regularly.*

This may be a unique story, but how can we talk about restoring peace after wars' hurt and harm without paying attention to the human aspects of conflicts in general and that of forgiveness and reconciliation in particular?" asks TFF director Jan Oberg. "I think we need to make forgiveness and reconciliation a central objective: in research and studies, in training and education and, above all, we should empower every civilian and military - and every international organisation engaged in war-torn societies - to work for it with the locals.

"Take a look at Bosnia and Croatia since 1995, look at Kosovo now, or Somalia, or...Have people really held out their arms or said 'I forgive you'? Come together in trust? Have they learnt how to deal with the past, not in order to forget it or to blame each other, but to acknowledge what happened and find ways to avoid it ever happening again? Can that even be said about South Africa? It is easy to repair houses and infrastructure, it's easy to throw money around and talk about human rights? But what if people deep down keep on hating each other and won't even dream about doing what Kim and John did? Will they themselves ever be happy and at peace with themselves? Will their children? What kind of society will it be if we cannot also, so to speak, repair souls and help create tolerance, co-existence, even cooperation and love?"

Jan Oberg continues, "One of the most moving experiences in my life was when, together with TFF team members, we helped a few Croats and Serbs in Eastern Slavonia, Croatia, come together: young boys and girls as well as the parent generation who were permitted for the first time to talk face-to-face about what had happened - but to stick to facts only and 'I language' and avoid blaming. Many cried, successively many laughed together - some now are friends and some do projects together - and, yes, some have left or lost hope again. TFF keeps working there today.

It made me understand how neglected the whole issue of 'soul reconstruction' is - and how vain everything else will be without it. You can pour any amount of dollars into Kosovo - it will not create peace unless we also, in deep respect and cooperation with the locals on all side, do something that can not be measured in money terms.

Recently I was in Burundi, where much worse violence has hit many more people. In two weeks I heard more sensible and genuine peace talk among NGOs and ministers than I have heard during TFF's 8-year mission in ex-Yugoslavia. I have no answer, but I wonder whether we Westerners are more oriented toward a peace that builds on the sword, legality, mechanics and external implanting of economic, political and human rights conditions for peace - whereas others may see peace more in the direction of trying to be at peace with oneself, come to terms with the evil that has been, find your own ways and use your local cultural rituals and traditions to facilitate forgiveness and reconciliation? In short, that the rich West goes for more or less interventionist quick-fix peace packages where people come last, while other cultures put people and non-material dimensions first and know that real peace has to come from within the individual and the social fabric. If so, we Westerners may have something important to learn about peace-making in other cultures!

There are many definitions of it, but forgiveness is an individual moral act of freeing oneself from the burden of hate and the right to revenge. Reconciliation takes at least two and aims at achieving something constructive out of a dark, hurtful past. It does NOT mean forgetting, it means remembering the past in order to live normally, or more fully, in the future. None of it can be achieved by money, by weapons or by legal measures - and it goes far deeper than human rights training.

To be more concrete," Jan Oberg continues, "it is time to learn from all these terrible wars and draw constructive conclusions from moral and intellectual catastrophes such as the international 'community's present one in Kosovo. Let's imagine that we establish regional institutes (or "centres" or "academies") for reconciliation in regions where conflicts have historically occurred frequently and risk is high that they will also in the future. Reconciliation could be understood here as an umbrella concept covering basically what happens from the moment a cease fire agreement is signed up to peaceful life, normalisation and socioeconomic development once again takes place &emdash; but with special emphasis on the human dimensions of post-war reconstruction.

For instance, we need more research on successful peace agreements and conflict-resolution processes, taking stock of the human experience, field studies of countries that have successfully learned to live with a painful past &emdash; lessons learned from old and contemporary history. We need systematic studies of the noble art of saying "I am sorry" &emdash; e.g. repentance, forgiveness, respect, healing, a collective acting out of sorrow and traumas and how to simultaneously move towards a vision of peaceful existence, either together or as good neighbours; and we need to "target" children and youth for long term violence-prevention - which in many cases means different schools, teaching materials and history books.

We need to think of memorials for all victims and all sides (as in Okinawa), books, religious places, theatre performances, exhibitions. We must build relations with those who have gone through war elsewhere. We need truth and reconciliation committees, for sure but also future workshops. And we need to expand facilities and improve methods for therapy such as empowerment of survivors; reinstating self control; rejection of relations of dominance and submission; spiritual regeneration; mourning and remembrance; developing a broad attachment to others, and work for the reconstruction of a narrative of history and the trauma and and constructive integration of it into memory. The list is endless!

The centres or institutes should be located in regions in which conflicts have been frequent historically and where they are likely to remain also for the future such as the Balkans, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, South East Asia, Central America, the Horn of Africa, southern Africa etc. In each region a site should be found that is itself expressive of a peace and reconciliation sentiment, for historical or other reason, or where peace has successfully been concluded. (If in Europe one could imagine Åland, Trento/Alto Adige/South Tirol, Schleswig-Holstein).

The institutes should do research, consultancy with formerly conflicting parties, including mediation and peace implementation planning, public outreach and, where feasible, set up pilot projects in post-war communities with the parties; and they should do courses, seminars and training for adversaries as well as locals who want to have an education in peace and reconciliation. Thus, theory and practise mixed and continuously inspiring each other.

The boards of these centres should be drawn from local professionals but could have experienced international advisers. Their members should be drawn from 1) social and human sciences including peace research and peace education, 2) governments, including local government, 3) civil society organisations, 4) humanitarian organisations and 5) area experts.

The centres would have a liaison committee in permanent contact with all relevant international organisations being present in the area such as the UN, OSCE, UNHCR, humanitarian organisations, regional associations such as the OAU, ASEAN, EU etc. It would discuss opportunities for co-operation and coordination, including joint training seminars of local and international staff on the spot.

The multi-ethnic/cultural/competent staff (research, consultants, information, (pilot) project managers and staff, area experts etc. would be drawn from the same five groups of the board. The whole point is to bring together - reconciliate - those five groups, too, and thereby promote integrated, effective reconciliation on the ground. Thus, the institutes would, by their organisation and human skills be expressive of the values it would teach others.

The institutes should be financed by the same constituencies and by anybody else who sympathises with the idea. In the beginning some institutes might need a special care from a government such as that of Sweden and other Nordic governments. No single donor, however, should exercise any particular influence on these institutes.

In order to market the idea internationally, enlightened governments and selected NGOs might take the initiative to set up an international preparatory committee that would dissolve itself when the first boards have been established.

And one more thing," adds Jan Oberg. "We should not see forgiveness and reconciliation only in a postwar perspective. Before wars break out there is a lot of humiliation, human rights violations, propaganda against certain groups, or similar indicators of something much worse to come. As part of violence preventive diplomacy, pre-war forgiveness and reconciliation should be introduced - like we could study cases (from everyday lives and politics) where such processes helped people turn away from the road to war.

The Year 2000 is proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations as The International Year for the Culture of Peace and the years 2001-2010 as the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World. What more appropriate idea then to set up centres for the study and practise of forgiveness, reconciliation and, consequently, of nonviolent handling of human conflicts?" ends Jan Oberg.


*) "The Lost Art of Forgiving" by John Christoph Arnold, The Plough Publishing House 1998 


© TFF 1999

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